Kraus’ debut album would not have sounded at all out of place if it had been issued, say, in 1970 or 1971, at the time when such moody contemporary British folk was cresting. That’s not at all to say that it’s revivalist, or uncomfortably imitative; indeed, to listeners who love that vintage genre, it’s more likely a high recommendation. In its ambience, the album strongly recalls the work of Shirley Collins, Sandy Denny, and more obscure songstresses like Vashti Bunyan. She’s a decent songwriter, and very much fits in the British folk lineage with her sad yet dignified melodies and lyrics with plenty of images evoking nature, epic love, and mythological aspects. There are (for this style) out-of-the-ordinary up-front depictions of incest (in “Twins”) and references to modern life (in the shiny car and taxi driver of the title track), though these aren’t too typical of the compositions. There isn’t enough rock to the backing to call this a folk-rock record, but it’s definitely far more contemporary than standard British folk, both in attitude and also in the pleasant variation of instrumental accompaniment, as in the ominously echoing keyboard of “Beautiful Twisted” and the bass clarinet squeals of “Song of the Unfree.”
ALL MUSIC GUIDE
Originally released on CD on Camera Obscura Records.
All songs written by Sharron Kraus.Recorded by Ron Guensche at New Future Vintage Studios.
Sharron Kraus: vocals, guitar, banjo, whistle, keyboards
Ron Guensche: upright bass, electric bass, lap steel guitar, mandolin
Amy Clay: fiddle on 1, 7, 10
Tracy Farbstein: fiddle on 2, 4, 5
Dean Welch: guitar, backing vocals
Marty Dowers: bass clarinet
Paul Conte: drums
* * * * 1/2
There are a few who fight a lonely battle against world music’s commercialized and warped definition of folk. People like Timothy Renner, the Iditarod and Gillian Welch who dig their hands deep into the soil of an unnerving past. And let us now also count Sharron Kraus among them. She’s been playing music for a decade, but it’s not until now she makes her debut on record – many thanks and congratulations to Camera Obscura for that. And what a debut it is! Kraus’s songs are rooted as much in Appalachian styles as in the gloomier side of British folk song with a touch of Lal Waterson. And like Waterson, Kraus has a voice of a woman, not a girl. The instrumentation is sparse, often only an earthy banjo and a gritty fiddle. The songs are like omens of a world going decidedly wrong but with alluring melodies to trick you into the trap. When the song deals with family traditions it is ridden with guilt and accusations. When she sings of love, it is of physical affection between twins or if Kraus cares to pour light into the grim story at all it is still marred with rue and regret. The world as seen through the songs of Sharron Kraus is a relentless place of faded sepia. The only way to endure it is to turn ugliness into beauty. It doesn’t really matter what is wrong, because there is no right left. Morals change and distort and you won’t notice. Beautiful Twisted is the perfect title. Many singers have explored the shady side of the world and the minds of those who inhabit it, but few have done it as convincingly as Sharron Kraus. It’s too early to name Beautiful Twisted a classic, but I doubt you’ll find a better example of a true future folk classic this early in the new millenium.Rockerilla Magazine
After the big stroke realised with Goblin Market, whose last year’s album marked one of the most exciting moments of the whole musical season, C.O. reaffirm their presence in the gothic folk edge with Sharron Kraus. “Beautiful Twisted” was recorded in California with a small team of co-workers, who added violin, string bass, mandolin and few other timbres to the guitar and five-string banjo of Sharron, a very expressive instrumentalist besides being an essential yet excellent singer. It’s precisely Kraus’ vocal personality to bring “Beautiful Twisted” near the atmospheres of Goblin Market’s ‘Ghostland’, while the instrumental impact is dryer and of higher acoustic purity, close to Fairport’s more bucolic things and to an even greater extent to the Incredible String Band. As happens for the greatest storytellers of the folk tradition, a fundamental point of strength is given by the lyrics, often entering scabrous territories (the tender incestuous story of ‘Twins’, recalling the young Joni Mitchell in the soft blend of guitar and violin, is the most evident example), perfectly balancing between melancholy and bitter irony, with a deliciously destabilising effect in a light-hearted hymn to detention as ‘Song of the Unfree’, inserted on the noble poetic string of female minstrels going from Shirley Collins to Suzanne Vega, taking also advantage of the colouring seductions of a strong and persuasive bass clarinet. Exemplary murder ballads and really unorthodox cloister memoirs, dark reminiscences of Don Juan and startling funeral gigues, waver in a notebook of dramatic remembrances, only sweetened by an undefined feeling of time distance, also rendered with visual effectiveness by the sepia-tinged monochromatic appearance of the rich booklet. Tales always menaced by dense clouds invite to an intense and pleasant listening, given also the abundant melodic proficiency of Sharron’s writing. A precious disc.
Geoff Ager, Shire Folk
Sharron Kraus’s Beautiful Twisted is an album of night shades and moonlight, a contemporary glimpse back at the roots of English traditional song. She sings to pared back accompaniments of banjo, fiddle and acoustic bass and guitar and her songs seem to take on an eerie, candlelit life of their own. The themes encounter traditional archetypes of family, love, loss, life and death and weave them into an uneasy and at times chilling blend. … Sharron’s voice may not have the strength of a Shirley Collins but it has its own distinctive character and that hint of fragility adds a further nuance to the songs.
Eelco Schilder, FolkWorld
Totally surprised was I when I heard the cd Beautiful Twisted by Sharron Kraus. I never heard of her before and after hearing the cd for the first time I’m very sorry that I didn’t hear her music before. Beautiful Twisted is a fresh album in the style of the old English folk-music known from artists like Shirley Collins and Anne Briggs. Although her style does remind of the young Shirley Collins, Sharron Kraus reminded me more of the Appalachian dulcimer player and singer Jean Ritchie on her album Clear waters remembered. The songs are self-written but if somebody would have told me that they were traditionals I would have believed it. Sharron accompanies herself on the banjo and occasionally on guitar and whistle. In Godstow she even managed to let the whistle sound like it should sound, just slightly out of tune but perfect in balance with the music. I can’t say I have favourite songs on this album, each of the eleven songs are strong and intriguing pieces of English singer songwriter music in the rich tradition of English folk-music. Even the lyrics are of good quality. This album will not only be loved by people who are already familiar to this music, Sharron opens the door to a younger and new public. I cant find the right words to express my enthusiasm about this album. BUY IT!!!
Malcolm Carter, Pennyblackmusic Magazine
Never was an album more aptly titled. Sharron Kraus has been gifted with a voice so pure, so fragile that on the first few plays of this outstanding album it disguises the fact that some of her lyrics deal with very dark subjects indeed. ‘Beautiful Twisted’ sums it up perfectly. … I really didn’t know that music like this was being made any more and I was certainly not aware that it was being released. This music can be favourably compared to the music made 30 odd years ago by the likes of Anne Briggs, who in turn was similarly making music which had its roots in ancient folk music from hundreds of years back. If you admired the work of Briggs when it was first released or are one of the new converts as a result of her work recently being re-released, then stop reading and just buy this album. The chances are that you’ll be just as impressed. … One of the main instruments used on these eleven original songs is the 5-string banjo. … Normally an instrument that evokes a happy sound for the most part (to these ears at least), it really is a revelation in the way in which it is played here to create the appropriate atmosphere.
Lyrically, the songs cover dark subjects. Floods, madness and incest to name just a few. ‘The Family Tradition’, for example, places Sharron’s beautiful vocals over an eerie backing of just banjo and fiddle, and tells of a young girl sitting in her grandmother’s chair and being told that she will meet a man who will “love you like I love you”. She is also told that she will go on to have children of her own and that she will pass on the family tradition of wearing the lace brought from her ancestors’ homeland for luck and protection. Not much to warrant the unearthly backing then. No, not until the last couple of verses. It then transpires that, ” All around her bed at night, The ghosts do stir and whisper, You are of us your turn has come, We are your blood little sister”. The song ends with the little girl, now grown up, standing at the altar accepting her fate of having children and a working life “wishing she loved her husband”.
The following track, ‘Twins’, is even more harrowing. “I slept with a man, who was my mother’s son”. How many tracks concerning incest would you want to listen to more than once? Well, here’s one. Again, it’s the purity in Sharron’s vocals and the atmospheric music that draws the listener in and her way with a lyric makes you picture the stories in your head. Even if it is a place where you don’t particularly want to go.
It’s been a long, long time since I’ve heard a record so dark and chilling, yet so beautiful and I guess that the next time I hear such an atmospheric album will be Sharron’s next release.
Lawrence Woolfe, Psyche Van Het Folk
Singer-songwriters operating in the field of compositions using traditional folk influences as their basis, occupy a remote and marginal space in the overall musical firmanent. Since the late 60’s/70’s creative boom, the standard was very much set by writers and interpreters such as Richard Thompson, Sandy Denny, bands like Steeleye Span, Fairport Convention, Trees (much revered now but a commercial failure then) and a few others (UK perspective wise). Much that I have heard in this genre since (apart from undiscovered exceptions) has generally been uninspired, hackened retreads of ieas, subjects, musical colourations that show a singular lack of inspiration and creative ability (see D.Daltrey and D.Youth). Not so Sharron Kraus on ‘Beautiful Twisted’ who gives us 11 self written songs that have a character of their own. The opening song ‘The Peacock’s Wing’ can be read as a metaphor for still prevailing attitudes in the sex war, telling us a tale of an unrealistic male obsession with a woman’s beauty, a desire to own and preserve this object of fascination for only his eyes and admire and devour with a twisted ardour (reminded me of a chilling film entitled “The butterfly Collector” or may be “this collector”). The unsettling sense of things not being as they first appear carries trough to a number of the other songs, namely “Twins” and “Death Jig”. What makes many of these songs successful is that though their is reference to this past (age old concerns, -tradition, love, spirit, unfaithful hearts) the subjects are firmly rooted and relevant to the present. Lyrics e.g. from ‘Godstow’ : “not fit to be mother / and don’t want to be a wife, they took me to a nunnery / at a place up-river from here” are rooted in a reality (rather than fantasy and over romantised evocations of this past) both past and present that illustrates the female predicament / struggle for identity. The warnings in “the wrong man” are modern yet ageless. The title track is one of my favourites texturally and musically. Vocally Sharron is interesting thankfully without any cloying oversweetness, and conveys in an understated manner the content of the songs. … It is a CD that rewards the attentive listener as repeated listens reveal the songs contents.
Gerald Van Waes, Psyche Van Het Folk
Beautiful to hear one of those rare releases with that 70’s UK styled magical folk lineage. Claiming to be under influence of Shirley Collins (here with a clear and straight voice), Martin Carthy and Anne Briggs (we can hear this very well in style), but also (this time not in style) Violent Femmes, Tom Waits, Nick Cave, Coil, and The Swans. The songs are very unpretentious. I like the often use of the banjo (giving it a poetic touch). The accompaniment makes it sound often better, like the second male voice on “The River’s Daughter”, the extra fiddle use (Amy Clay and Tracy Farbstein) on various songs. Having first completed a Doctorate in Philosophy at the Oxford University it is also clear that her choice/writing of songs/ is never another grip in the obvious. Hope that Sharron’s talent will blossom further. Latest news I heard is that she toured with the Iditarod.
John Leeson, Nightshift Magazine
Sharron’s debut album retains all the haunted atmosphere of a quiet night in with Bela Lugosi and a Wicker Man video (the soundtrack to which she wouldn’t sound out of place on here) but dappled with the gentle touch of some pure, untainted Celtic music. Songs like ‘The Peacock’s Wings’ or the banjo-led ‘The River’s Daughter’ with its sly scraping violin, sound ancient and pagan, heavily influenced by the trad folk of Ireland’s Altan and at times Maddy Prior.
Richie Unterberger, All Music Guide
Kraus’ debut album would not have sounded at all out of place if it had been issued, say, in 1970 or 1971, at the time when such moody contemporary British folk was cresting. That’s not at all to say that it’s revivalist, or uncomfortably imitative; indeed, to listeners who love that vintage genre, it’s more likely a high recommendation. In its ambience, the album strongly recalls the work of Shirley Collins, Sandy Denny, and more obscure songstresses like Vashti Bunyan, though Kraus is no match for Collins or Denny vocally (not many singers are). She’s a decent songwriter, though, and very much fits in the British folk lineage with her sad yet dignified melodies and lyrics with plenty of images evoking nature, epic love, and mythological aspects. There are (for this style) out-of-the-ordinary up-front depictions of incest (in “Twins”) and references to modern life (in the shiny car and taxi driver of the title track), though these aren’t too typical of the compositions. There isn’t enough rock to the backing to call this a folk-rock record, but it’s definitely far more contemporary than standard British folk, both in attitude and also in the pleasant variation of instrumental accompaniment, as in the ominously echoing keyboard of “Beautiful Twisted” and the bass clarinet squeals of “Song of the Unfree.”
Rating: * * * *
Jeff Penczak, DJ, No Soap, Radio, WNTI FM
For their historic 50th release, Camera Obscura have selected the gothic wyrdfolk of (Dr.) Sharron Kraus … the packaging hints at ancient tales of murder and mystery a la Spectral Light’s Scarecrow Stuffing and Kraus delivers with a collection of tales that run the gamut from incest and perversion to gettin’ jiggy with Mr. “D.” The mostly drummerless instrumentation, highlighted by stellar performances from Amy Clay and Tracy Farbstein on fiddle, Ron Guensche on mandolin and 5-string banjo, and Kraus, herself, blowing a mean whistle, is perfectly suited to the olde tyme, hand-me-down, traditional feel to the album, and welcomes favorable, albeit obvious comparisons to Fairport Convention. Indeed, Kraus’ voice is, at times, strikingly similar to Sandy Denny’s angelic soprano. If you close your eyes… Highlights include the swaying waltz of “Moonbathing,” the provocative “Twins,” a mournful tale of incest featuring Tracy’s haunting fiddle solo, the jolly “Death Jig,” and Kraus’ low whistle solo (now there’s something we don’t get enough of these days) on the ghostly “The Wrong Man,” which brings back fond memories of Gryphon, The Third Ear Band, Dr. Strangely Strange, and Mr. Fox, just to mention a few artists who’ve explored similar territory with equally impressive results. The title track gets the full-band treatment, and the participants are firing on all cylinders, yet display an amazing restraint, which compliments the dichotomy of the oxymoronic lyric. The almost unbearable tension of the arrangement rounds out an excellent collection of “beautifully twisted” tunes, a welcome addition to the expanding canon of intriguing, off-kilter, wyrdfolk projects, and as such is recommended to fans of Goblin Market, Stone Breath, Monster Island, The Iditarod, and other “poor minstrals of song”.
Mark Coyle, Unbroken Circle
Listening to this album it is amazing how accurately the sense of the remote is achieved. These are the people who are lost to society, for whom the technological era means nothing. This album creates a reality of religious intolerance, backbreaking work, of brief respite and abandoned pleasure. Perhaps only Tom Waits has so brilliantly portrayed such people before. I am glad to visit this place but living there would be as haunted and disturbing as this accomplished album portrays. With an album as stark and in its own way definitive as this, Sharron has set expectations high for any follow up.
Folk music from Oxford, England’s Sharron Kraus, possesser of an airy yet resonant voice, accompanied by banjo, fiddle, mandolin, and an occasional whistle which gives the entire record an authentic old-timey, Renaissance Faire sheen. If you can handle the “oooh butterfly man” chorus in the first track (“Peacock’s Daughter”), you’ll like the rest of it. Think Shirley Collins, Anne Briggs, maybe even a little Sandy Denny.
George Parsons, Dream Magazine #3
Sharron makes music from another time. First it harkens back to work by folks like Shirley Collins, Anne Briggs and Jacqui Mcshee from over 30 years ago; which in turn looks backwards in time for hundreds of years. Here she embraces ancient folk forms from England, Ireland and North America. The instrumentation is all acoustic, and the playing is exquisite, the songs are so lovely that at first you don’t notice how peculiarly dark the subject matter is. The protagonist of “The Peacock’s Wing” captures his dream woman and locks her away from the world until she dies. There’s flood in the fields, and deep disturbing secrets in the night. Incest, obsession, love, madness and death. But, there’s also the pure nocturnal exultation of the elfin “Moonbathing”, and the witty woozy “Song of the Unfree” (where she gets jazzy and levitates a bit), and the sweetness of all the music and her wonderful voice to carry you through all of this beautifully beguiling sorrow.
Amadeo Spahi, DJ, Sol FM, Lyon
I’ve just received “Beautiful Twisted” and it’s very simply amazing !!! If I weren’t that gay, I’d surely fall in love with Sharron, for her musical & vocal abilities are brilliant not to mention the extremely rich variety of emotions she is able to conjure. Her music possess a spiritual quality that is as pure and bright as water, indeed fluidly filling the space : something to listen to by the faint light of a candle in the most introspective hours. My favourite spells being “The River’s Daughter”, “Beautiful Twisted”, “Death Jig” and “The Family Tradition” (I’ll play at least three of these next Sunday in my radioshow, and more in the following weeks..
Renaud Rigart, Zoopa Loop e-zine
Sharron Kraus is a wonderful songwriter, composer that puts all her feelings into music … The music is so rich in emotions and more complex that it seems, and the listener needs many listenings to find and to surround completely the essence of Sharron’s music. … Another surprise was how Sharron used Banjo, this is the first time I listened to a such plaintive and sad way to play Banjo ( “The river’s daughter”). Instruments as Mandolin, Bass Clarinet, Fiddle come to complete the songs their differents tones and making Sharron’s music more interesting . The other important part is Sharron’s voice that is very personal and it’s the less I can say. The first time I listened to the record, I was more suprised by her voice than the music itself, and after many listenings, this voice and this special tone, that could be described as a crystal piece with a little splinter in it, are perfect for the songs and improve their qualities. … “Beautiful twisted” is a record that gets better with the time. Pure, fragile, either of those emotions appears during the whole record, the dark and gothic atmosphere fades away slowly while a mystical ambience is rising.
And someone who really didn’t like Beautiful Twisted:
Peter Massey, Green Man Review
It does not matter what kind of music you play or choose to listen to, either way you do so because it gives you some kind of pleasure or entertainment. When it comes to singer songwriters, there are several ways they can go wrong. Often they either sell themselves short, or sometimes they are so wrapped up in their own private reality, it is difficult to connect with their lyrics. The latter I feel is the case with Sharron Kraus.
If this album had been released back in 1972 it would not have sounded out of place, along with all the other also-rans that represented probably the worst of female British folk singers of that day. Thankfully, times have changed and we have moved on. These days there are dozens of really excellent female vocalists putting out some good albums. Sharron has picked a hard road to travel, and I am sorry to say this album may not take her very far. Often a singer songwriter can get away with having a poor singing voice by writing lyrics that ring true or have a sense of purpose, like Bob Dylan; unfortunately Sharron has chosen to write lyrics that are nonsensical and have no real sense of meaning.
It is hard to describe what her songs are about, as they are very deep and may have several psychological interpretations, for different people. Song titles like, ‘The Peacocks Wings’, ‘Moon Bathing’, ‘The Rivers Daughter’, ‘Cold Hearted Devil’ and ‘Death Jig’ may give you some indication of their content. I would strongly recommend you visit Sharron’s Web site before you purchase the album to avoid disappointment. It certainly was not to my taste, but it may be our readers, particularly those who like lyrics based on symbolism. I would advise listening to several tracks from the album before making a decision.
In common with all singers, some listeners may find their songs good, and others find them weak. Every now and again a songwriter will touch base and come up with a really brilliant song, but I did not find that to be so on this album.